The Tampa Bay Lightning dominated the regular season, but can they strike again in the postseason?
The curtain fell on the NHL regular season on Saturday night, and the Stanley Cup playoffs begin Wednesday with all eyes on the Lightning (62-16-4, 128 points). The next closest point total to Tampa Bay’s tally was 107, produced by both the Western Conference-leading Calgary Flames (50-25-7) and the Eastern Conference runner-up Boston Bruins (49-24-9).
The Atlantic Division-winning Lightning, who matched the league record with their 62 wins and had sewn up the Presidents’ Trophy for most points in the season by mid-March, will begin the second season by meeting the Columbus Blue Jackets (47-31-4, 98 points).
The Carolina Hurricanes (46-29-7, 99 points) and the Blue Jackets were set as the Eastern Conference wild cards, but their order wasn’t in place until the Hurricanes won their game on Saturday and relegated the Blue Jackets to the second wild-card — and the first-round date with the Lightning.
Lest Tampa Bay take Columbus lightly, the Blue Jackets begin the postseason having won seven of their past eight games. The Hurricanes, winners of four of their last five to close out the regular season, must face the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals (48-26-8, 104 points), the Metropolitan Division champions.
The other Eastern Conference first-round matchups have the divisions’ second- and third-place teams squaring off.
In the Atlantic Division, that’s the Bruins facing the Toronto Maple Leafs (46-28-8, 100 points). In the Metropolitan, the New York Islanders (48-27-7, 103 points), mostly an after-thought as a postseason contender when the season began, facing the Pittsburgh Penguins (44-26-12, 100 points).
Out West, the Pacific Division champion Flames have been winning in spurts since mid-February, with their 107 points enough to outlast the division runner-up San Jose Sharks (101) and the Central Division champion Nashville Predators (100).
Calgary’s reward is a first-round series against the Colorado Avalanche (38-30-14, 90 points), the second wild card. The Avalanche will be facing a team that had 10 winning streaks of at least three games during the season, including a seven-gamer that ran until the end of February.
The Flames finished the season winning 16 of their last 25 games, adding three more three-game winning streaks along the way.
The Avalanche begin the postseason on their own roll, having finished 8-1-2, although they lost to Calgary all three times during the regular season. The teams haven’t met since Jan. 9.
The Predators (47-29-6, 100 points) will tangle with the Stars (43-32-7, 93 points). Dallas locked down the West’s first wild card by winning five of its final seven games.
The other two Western Conference postseason series will feature the Pacific’s second- and third-place teams, the San Jose Sharks (46-27-9, 101 points) and Vegas Golden Knights (43-32-7, 93 points), respectively, and the Central’s next best squads, the Winnipeg Jets (47-30-5, 99 points) and the St. Louis Blues (45-28-9, 99 points).
—Field Level Media